Something has felt different about the climate politics chatter in the last few months.
It’s like someone has turned up the volume on voices telling us that the vital goal of holding global heating below 1.5 C is doomed, and it’s time just to accept that harsh truth.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s recent remarks were a prominent case in point: “There’s no chance you’ll hit 1.5 degrees. It’s very unlikely you’ll hit 2 degrees.… At this point, to stay below 2.5 C would be pretty fantastic. I do think that’s possible.” Stunning stuff from the billionaire author of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
And Gates is hardly alone.
Around the time of last year’s global climate talks, outlets including The Economist, Scientific American, and The Guardian featured pieces about the inevitable and imminent death of 1.5 C.
It’s not like no one had been saying it before, but the chatter has become more common. And we shouldn’t be surprised to hear even more such pronouncements around the time of this year’s global climate talks (COP28).
If that shift is happening — if it’s to become the new wisdom of the times that the world will fail to meet the 1.5 goal — there are some major implications for climate politics that are in danger of being overlooked.
The truth that missing 1.5 C reveals
There has been a single political and economic order reigning over the period during which the target could be achieved.
No one should hear any declaration that 1.5 C is dead without immediately linking that death to contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Any neoliberal cheerleader or apologist telling us that 1.5 C can no longer be reached must also be interpreted as admitting that their favoured system is an extreme threat.
We know that breaching 1.5 C will have increasingly devastating consequences around the world, particularly for those most vulnerable to climate change, something we’re already seeing in abundance at just the current level of warming. And the further the world warms beyond that point, the greater the likelihood of tipping points triggering in the climate system.
Yet in the context of this urgent crisis, our reigning system has time and again kept off the table the solutions we really need — from strong regulations that would see the fossil fuel industry phased out to taxes on the wealthy to fund massive public investments in green energy locally and around the world.
To be sure, there are plenty of reasonable voices who understand and identify the system that is killing the target. But one danger of the moment is that many of those dominating the discussion about the death of 1.5 will do so in a way that fails to stir any sort of reflection about the deep cause of the failure.
Like Bill Gates. When he tells audiences that we are not going to keep warming below 1.5 C (or even 2 C), he isn’t going to say that it’s because we are stuck in a system that allows his obscenely wealthy class to exist — and to freely keep living high-carbon lifestyles, to hoard resources, and to pour investment capital into fossil fuel expansion.
As voices from the fossil fuel industry increasingly join the chorus, what they won’t tell us is that 1.5 died because they were free to corrupt democracies with campaign contributions and propaganda, were allowed to pursue ever more vast stores of carbon in the midst of a climate emergency, and were spared from windfall taxes, even as they raked in unprecedented profits.
There is every reason to be ready to counter voices like that who are all too willing to let the system off the hook and prevent people from seeing the true root of the problem.
Another concern in any potential post-1.5 target world is how to continue to convey urgency. To appreciate that challenge, it’s worth recalling how 1.5 changed the politics of climate change.
The inclusion of the 1.5 C target into the 2015 Paris climate agreement was an unexpected concession to nations acutely threatened by climate change. For years, they had been raising concerns that climate negotiations were set on locking in a target of keeping warming to 2 C. (“1.5 to stay alive” went the desperate chant from activist movements in the Global South.)
The 1.5 target received a shot in the arm thanks to a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018. The most significant finding was this: if the world began immediately reducing annual emissions so that by 2030 they would fall to around half of what they were in 2010, the 1.5 target could be met.
Because that didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the message was simplified into different variants of “We have just 12 years left to act on climate change.”
It all came together in a way that just worked. A crystal-clear goal, the highest of stakes, a ticking clock with barely enough time on it — there’s a reason that formula is the core of so many blockbusters.
One result was that it brought new bodies and urgent energy to a climate movement that was growing more politically savvy and confrontational. It’s in the context of the mobilization to preserve 1.5 that we have to understand the growth and prominence of Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, climate strikes, and the Green New Deal.
It’s hard to say what would work that well in place of the 1.5 target. The Paris Agreement has a sort of backup goal of keeping warming “well below” 2 C. The ambiguity of that wording is itself one problem for climate communication. But that’s not all.
There’s an increasingly common response that goes something like this: “Every fraction of a degree matters. If we fail to keep warming at 1.5 C, then we fight to keep it at 1.6 or 1.7.” And while that’s the right kind of undaunted spirit, it faces a big communication challenge.
If, say, 1.7 C becomes the new definition of climate ambition, could it rally people in the same way as 1.5 originally did? Would it work to restart the “We have X years left to act” ticking clock?
At the same time, a different kind of target stands to take the place of 1.5 C. Talk of achieving “net-zero emissions” by mid-century — that is, ensuring that any greenhouse gas emissions still entering the atmosphere are offset by an equivalent amount pulled out of it — is increasingly crowding out talk of holding average warming below a certain temperature.
Net-zero by mid-century is a target with a distant time horizon, one that lulls people into thinking there’s still lots of time before we need to get serious, while also hinting that unproven carbon-removing geoengineering technologies will be a saving grace.
There is one — perhaps last — major opportunity to make a big push to keep 1.5 alive.
Antonio Guterres, United Nations secretary-general, will convene what he is describing as a “no-nonsense” Climate Ambition Summit this September to correct course.
That leaves a few months for the climate movement to somehow find ways of pressuring the governments attending those talks to get serious.
But it would be wrong to see the 1.5 C target as the only thing on the line there. The summit also needs to be the last stand of anyone hoping to credibly maintain that neoliberalism is anything other than a world-killer. If no credible path to save 1.5 emerges from those talks, everyone has to hear that there is no way to prevent climate catastrophe by working within our existing system. That system had its chance and failed. And even now, as it sets weak mid-century targets, it is set on continuing to fail.
If 1.5 dies, so too must neoliberalism.